Azzurri on the rise and clubs play their part
Published 26/09/2013 | 01:31
Minutes after guiding Leinster to the 2012-13 RaboDirect PRO12 title in what was his final match in charge, coach Joe Schmidt was asked a question.
"Who should we be watching out for next season?"
It may surprise you, but he singled out Benetton Treviso, Ulster's guests tomorrow night.
Since the admission of two Italian franchises to the then-Magners League in 2010-11, Treviso have always been the stronger of the pair. They totally eclipsed Aironi in the duo's inaugural season and again in 2011-12.
That second campaign proved to be Aironi's last and their name passed into history, to be replaced by a new one, Zebre, who absorbed most of their players.
Since their induction, Treviso's finishing positions on the 12-rung ladder have been 10th, 10th and seventh. But that is only part of the story, the core of which is that they have improved year upon year to the point where no-one dare underestimate them now.
For some time it had been argued that until the Italians had clubs/districts which were playing competitive matches in a properly structured season, Italian rugby could not progress. This is Treviso's fourth such campaign and the pudding has, indeed, provided the proof.
Last weekend they inflicted then-leaders Munster's first defeat of 2013-14, beating Rob Penney's team 29-19 and knocking them off the top perch.
They now have 25 Italian international players on their books. Progress? You'd better believe it.
And if Ulster – who are in Treviso's Heineken Cup pool – treat them lightly, they could end up with a very bloody nose, tonight and further down the line. Leicester and Montpellier will not be the only opponents posing a threat.
Last season – Zebre's first – saw them lose all 22 PRO12 games, plus each of their six in the Heineken Cup. Played 28, lost 28 really was a baptism of fire.
But last weekend they brought that run to an end. After 12 months of defeats, finally the Parma-based franchise won at the 31st time of asking, beating Cardiff Blues 30-25 – at the Arms Park for good measure.
In truth, that win had been coming for some time, for Zebre were never as poor as those stark statistics implied.
Last season's 22 PRO12 defeats included one in which they earned a bonus for having scored four tries yet still ended up losers. Their opponents on that occasion? Ulster, who were very, very fortunate to have escaped intact from Stadio XXV Aprile where they were outscored by four tries to two, one of those a debatable penalty try.
That was one of nine occasions when Zebre picked up a bonus after losing by a seven-or-fewer-points margin. One of those points came at Scotstoun where Glasgow were more than relieved to emerge on the right side of a 22-19 scoreline.
And that wasn't their only bonus on the road; Connacht shaded it 23-19 in Galway while Ospreys sneaked home by a 16-15 margin in Swansea.
Zebre are moving in the right direction and, as a result, so too are Italy, who shared fourth place with Scotland in last season's Six Nations Championship ahead of Ireland and France, both of whom they defeated. So make no mistake; rugby really is on the rise in the land of the Azzurri.